The best college basketball coach in Texas history still spends most game nights at the place that bears his name: the Don Haskins Center, a building with uniform orange seats on the UT-El Paso campus that tells its story in the rafters—25 banners, including a double-sized commemoration of the only national champion this state has ever had. Disney is considering a movie about the basketball team at Texas Western College (which later became the University of Texas at El Paso) and its history-making run through the 1966 NCAA tournament, in which Haskins’s five African American starters beat an all-white Kentucky team, smashing basketball’s color barrier forever (can you say, “a roundball Remember the Titans?”). During Haskins’s tenure the Miners won 719 games, racked up 14 NCAA appearances, and prepared both players (Nate Archibald, Tim Hardaway, Antonio Davis) and coaches (Nolan Richardson, Tim Floyd) for the big time.
“He’s a legend. He’s a hall of fame guy. And he’s a Miner through and through,” says current UTEP basketball coach Billy Gillispie. “He built this program, he built the building, he has so much to do with everything that goes on in this city and the university. He knows so much about the game, but more importantly he knows so much about life, getting the most out of people, caring about people, those kind of things. It’s a real treat every time I get a chance to be around him.”
As part of the reporting for his story on Gillispie and the current UTEP team (see “Miner Threat,” November 2003), Texas Monthly’s Jason Cohen sat down with Haskins during the ’02-’03 season.
texasmonthly.com: Has the game changed since you were coaching?
Don Haskins: Changed? Not that much changes. The athletes every year get a little better. I think Gillispie’s trying to do the right thing. We’re not going to be good until we get a good defense, and I think he’s well on the way to doing that.
texasmonthly.com: Is that especially true for smaller programs—defense is the most important thing?
DH: The team that wins the national championship will always be a team that can guard you. Sure, you can get away with a little less defense if you’ve got great offensive players, but the national champion will be able to guard you.
texasmonthly.com: How about the prominence of the Big 12, has that made it harder for schools like UTEP to compete with the big schools?
DH: The old Southwest Conference was pretty good, but the Big 12 has gone way beyond that, especially in terms of basketball. The University of Texas is now a basketball power, and Bob Knight is really a boost for not only Texas Tech but also Texas basketball. Sure it does make it harder, but there’s still a lot of basketball players out there. I talked to Bob Knight a while back when they were playing here, and I asked him, “Are you surprised that there’s so much talent in the state of Texas?” He was telling me that he watched one tournament in the summer where there were five guys—if I’m wrong, maybe he’ll forgive me—but I think he said he saw five guys that could possibly be NBA players. I’ve always known if I could just get me one or two out of Texas a year that I wanted, I’d be going to the NCAA tournament.
texasmonthly.com: Why did your teams struggle in the nineties?
DH: In the nineties, we had an NCAA problem. We had our scholarships limited for a few years. Our major violation was assistant coaches giving a couple of players car rides. But we went through that. UTEPs do go through that. Notre Dames don’t. That was a struggle. But we stayed competitive. In ’92 we went to the Final Sixteen. That was one of our last real good basketball teams. [Assistant coaches] G. Ray Johnson and Luster Goodwin did an outstanding job of recruiting in the years that we had limited scholarships.
texasmonthly.com: Are you conscious of being a tough act to follow?
DH: We had a lot of tradition. We won a lot of games. Our plan was always to have a good defense first and think about the other things second. I think Coach Gillispie is heading in that direction. This is a tough place to get players. Of course, a couple of the best basketball players I ever had were from El Paso. Jim Forbes played on the ’72 Olympic team. Gus Bailey played five years in the NBA.
But most of the time, the recruiting is tough. During a nine-year period I was fortunate enough to have Tim Floyd, who was a workaholic as far as getting us some extra nice talent. And we’ve been lucky. One of the first great players I had was Nate Archibald, and Nate was little. Not that many people wanted him. He turned out to be a great player. Jim Barnes—I’ll never forget, I spent my entire recruiting budget, which was $5,000, going back and forth to Cameron Junior College in Lawton, Oklahoma, and I did get him. Tim Hardaway was not that highly recruited and came to be a great player. Tim wasn’t a great freshman, but when he was a sophomore—I’d like to take credit for coaching him, for getting him better, but Tim got himself better, through work ethic. Every year he was a better player. Now there’s not that many players who want to work as hard in the off-season.
texasmonthly.com: Do you enjoy the games as a fan now?
DH: I love watching the Miners play. I pull for ’em. The thing I’ve noticed that’s better is the officiating. You don’t see everything that’s wrong with them like when you’re sitting on the bench.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like about El Paso?
DH: Well, I’ve always liked it. Y’know, you get a lot of blue-collar people and it’s a great sports town. I hear people say, well, the fans aren’t coming out—everybody has a difficult time when you’re losing, getting people to come out, and I think our fans are better than 99 percent of other places. I think our fans really understand the team is trying and giving its best effort. Just from what I hear, they’re enjoying watching our Miners play.
texasmonthly.com: What’s it like having a building named after you?
DH: I tell ya, I still get goose bumps when I drive down Mesa and I look over and see that place, ’cause, yes, it makes me feel very good. Of all the nice things that have happened to me, I really believe that is the thing that, if I had to have something taken away, that wouldn’t be one of ’em.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve been known to downplay the significance of starting five black players in ’66.
DH: Well, I wasn’t aware that was happening. I didn’t go into the championship game thinking, “Am I gonna play two white guys?” I was thinking about winning. Willie Worsley, who was a sophomore guard at 5 feet 6 inches, he’d never started a game before, but because Kentucky was a great running team, Moe Iba and I decided to put three guys back on defense. And I didn’t start Nevil Shed because he had a hip pointer. He was limping. We just didn’t think that way, though they’ve got me thinking that way nowadays. I know maybe there was talk, but I was young, I wasn’t paying a hell of a lot of attention. We were trying to win a game. I found out after the game, a couple of weeks later, when I started to get a lot of hate mail, what had happened. We had a bunch of good guys on our team, and the thing that I’ve always been the proudest of is that every one of them was a success in life.
Y’know, ’66 gets a lot of credit, but the real credit should go to George McCarty [UTEP’s basketball coach from 1953-1959]. George had a guy by the name of Charlie Brown. In ’56-’57, they won the Border conference and Charlie was the first black player here. The first year I was here—I’ll never forget—on one of the first trips, we went to Abilene, walked up to the hotel desk, and the clerk said, “Coach, your three colored can’t stay here, we’ll have to get another place for ’em.” I said, “We’ll all find a new place.” But Charlie, I know that George couldn’t get him in any place. He was probably the first black player ever in the South—’66 wouldn’t have been ’66 had it not been for George McCarty and Charlie Brown.